Downward trend

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The Government focus on skewing funded childcare towards working parents means those most in need are missing out


Natalie Perera, executive director and head of research at the EPI

Since 2015, early years policy-makers have been largely distracted by implementing the 30-hour offer to three- and four-year-olds. Meanwhile, access to high-quality early years provision for younger children (under the age of three) seems to have slipped down the public and political agenda. However, two studies published in the past few weeks highlight the need for a renewed focus in this area.

In August, the Early Intervention Foundation published a report assessing the take-up and impact of the free childcare offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds. The report found that take-up among children from non-white British backgrounds and those for whom English is an additional language is particularly low (around 30 per cent for Bangladeshi children and 34 per cent for Gypsy/Roma children, compared with 64 per cent for white British children). As well as access to places, the report suggests cultural and linguistic factors may be a barrier in take-up for these families.

These trends were further supported in the OECD’s annual Education at a Glance report, published last week. The report compares education systems across 46 countries and jurisdictions, giving us helpful international benchmarks.

Last week’s report highlighted the inequity of access to early years provision faced by disadvantaged and immigrant families. In the UK, around 32 per cent of children aged under three participated in early childhood education (just under the OECD average of 35 per cent). For children whose mothers have a degree, this rises to around 42 per cent, and for children of women without a degree, this figure falls to around 25 per cent – five percentage points lower than the OECD average for this group.

The OECD report supports the Early Intervention Foundation  findings, concluding that, in most countries, the participation of immigrant children is considerably lower than their peers. This matters because a separate study conducted by the OECD found immigrant pupils scored an additional 36 points in the standardised PISA test at age 15 if they had attended early childhood education for at least one year, compared with those who had attended for less than a year. Even considering socio-economic status, there was a 25 point advantage.

To really tackle inequality, the Government needs to rethink its approach to early years by moving away from a ‘welfare to work’ objective and instead consider how it can improve access for the hardest-to-reach children.

  • See the full OECD report Education at a Glance here
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